Turner: This could be best Chargers team in my four seasons

SAN DIEGO -- Norv Turner thinks this season's San Diego Chargers can be the best team in his four seasons as head coach.

That's pretty optimistic thinking, considering the Chargers are expected to be without Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill, a Pro Bowler in 2007-08, for training camp and possibly longer. Unhappy about not getting long-term contracts, Jackson and McNeill have refused to sign their tenders as restricted free agents, a move that has cost each of them approximately $2.5 million.

Even if he were to report, Jackson has been suspended by the NFL for the first three games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He pleaded guilty in February to his second DUI since 2006.

Turner said Thursday that he bases his hopes on quarterback Philip Rivers, a defense that he says has made big improvements and a commitment to make the Chargers a better running team in the post-LaDainian Tomlinson era.

Rookies and some veterans are due to report on Sunday, with their first training camp practice on Monday morning. The first full-squad practice will be July 30.

Going into the weekend, the team's only unsigned draft pick is running back Ryan Mathews, the 12th pick overall who is expected to replace the departed Tomlinson.

San Diego was 13-3 last year before an embarrassing home playoff loss to the New York Jets.

"We have a chance -- and you have to go do it -- to have this be the best team that I've been with since I've been here," Turner said.

San Diego made it to the AFC championship game after the 2007 season, Turner's first with the Bolts. Including that defeat at New England, the Chargers have lost three of their last four playoff games.

The absences of Jackson, who had 68 catches for 1,167 yards and nine touchdowns, and McNeill, who protects Rivers' blind side, can hardly be overlooked. Jackson is coming off his second straight 1,000-yard season, and at 6-foot-5, gave Rivers another enticing target to go along with Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates.

"You weigh that, and I'm like everyone involved -- I'd love to have all our guys there," Turner said. "But from a coaching standpoint, I'm going to go coach the people that are there."

Turner likened this situation to the Chargers' 2009 opener at Oakland, when they lost center Nick Hardwick, rookie right guard Louis Vasquez and Tomlinson to injuries in a game they had to rally to win.

"It's like you got knocked down and had to take a mandatory count, you know, and you're looking around and saying, 'What are we going to do, how are going to do this?' And then after you get over the shock, you start figuring, 'OK, we have to do this, this and this,' and then pretty soon we became a very good football team."

Hardwick missed the next 13 weeks, forcing the Chargers to shuffle their line.

To fill in for McNeill this season, the Chargers have signed 35-year-old Tra Thomas, a three-time Pro Bowler. Second-year pro Brandyn Dombrowski, who played right guard and right tackle last year, can also play left tackle.

Time to move on

With the Chargers set to open camp without Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill,*Philip Rivers* says the team will "keep on moving." **More ...**

"Tra Thomas brings his experience, much like four years ago when Roman Oben came in, and everyone said, 'This is an old, broken-down guy,' and all he did was go play for two, three years and play at a high level," Turner said.

To fill in for Jackson, the Chargers will turn to Legedu Naanee, who's coming off foot surgery, and Craig "Buster" Davis, who's often been injured and hasn't lived up to his billing as the team's first-round draft pick in 2007.

"If Vincent Jackson isn't with us, Legedu Naanee is getting the opportunity of a lifetime," Turner said. "Buster Davis is getting the opportunity of a lifetime. Legedu believes he can be a dynamic, explosive receiver in this league. He has the same feeling about himself that Vincent Jackson had about himself when I got here, and Vincent's done that.

"There's opportunities for some other guys if we're in that position."

Naanee had 24 catches for 242 yards and two TDs last year, while Davis had six catches for 52 yards. The Chargers also have Malcom Floyd, who also wanted a long-term deal but signed his $3,168,000 tender in June. Floyd had 45 catches for 776 yards and one touchdown in 2009. The Chargers signed free agent wide receiver Josh Reed from Buffalo, who had 27 catches for 291 yards and one touchdown.

Turner and the Chargers would love to forget their 17-14 playoff loss against the Jets, when All-Pro Nate Kaeding missed three field goal attempts, Jackson and linebacker Shaun Phillips each had a silly penalty and cornerback Antonio Cromartie -- now with the Jets -- whiffed on a tackle on Shonn Greene's 53-yard touchdown run.

"That's why I'm anxious, excited about the season starting because we'll have some other games to talk about other than that one once we get going," Turner said.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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